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Say YES to a general strike

After TUC agrees to consider a general strike, step up the pressure for real action, argues Dave Stockton

By a sizeable majority, TUC delegates have voted for a motion from the Prison Officers Association, which says:

“Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible with far-reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike.”

Before the vote, this paper commented that, while this was “the best motion” to the Congress, it “does not commit the TUC to actually doing anything”.

Its weaknesses are plain enough – it talks only of “consideration” and investigating the “practicalities” of a general strike. But now we have to take account of the fact that it was enthusiastically passed by Congress delegates, indicating that rank and file union members are fed up with their leaders’ inaction.

No wonder! Three years of a pay freeze in the public sector, vicious cuts in jobs and services, pensions fiddled and now the promise of another round of cuts this autumn. With only one national demonstration and two days of coordinated strikes since the Coalition came to office, the TUC has certainly not been “leading from the front”.

So it is no surprise that delegates loudly cheered the words of Bob Crow of the RMT when he said: “The only way if we have spears being thrown at us is to put up shields. If it means a general strike, let’s do it and get on with it.”

Other supporters of the resolution were the post union CWU, Unite and Ucatt, the builders’ union. PCS vice-president and Socialist Party member John McInally added that after the next TUC demonstration on 20 October a one-day general strike should be considered.

Turning words into action
Union activists and socialist organisations now need to unite their forces to put maximum pressure on the TUC leaders to live up to their words – not just to “consider” but to mobilise for and CALL a general strike!

There will be no lack of opposition to this within the top ranks of the union bureaucracy.

The attitude of outgoing General Secretary Brendan Barber and Congress House was summed up by ITV news: “TUC sources” had warned that a general strike “would be virtually impossible, since it would involve every union member in every company in the UK finding a dispute with their employer in order to legally take strike action”.

If we leave examination of the “practicalities” to the officials of the TUC then we know what their conclusions will be. A general strike is unlawful so it cannot be done.

Progressive lawyers KD Ewing and John Hendy are arguing that the European Court of Human Rights could rule a one-day general strike lawful under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. But to go down this route would be a dangerous diversion.

There can be little doubt that British courts would not recognise these rulings or would grant injunctions to employers against unions even balloting for such action. Appealing to the High Court or the Supreme Court, let alone the ECHR, would put off action till it is too late, disrupt the coordination, allow and right wing unions to back out. Also it effectively concedes that a strike must be lawful to be effective and “practicable”.

A general strike has never been legal in Britain and probably never will be. The only safeguard against the law and the unelected ruling class judges lies in numbers. They can’t arrest millions, so we all must strike together.

The next steps
The first people the TUC needs to consult on the “practicality” of a general strike are not the lawyers but the six million members of the unions themselves.

The first step is to push hard for the TUC’s “consideration” of a general strike to begin NOW. To make our voice heard the left unions and the anti-cuts campaigns should launched a mass petition addressed to the TUC general council, to be signed in the workplaces, on the streets and online, saying “YES we want a general strike”, backing this up with print and web articles putting the case for united action.

In every workplace, in every town and city, in the run up to the demonstration on 20 October we should start this “investigation” by calling public meetings, to explain why we need not just to demonstrate but to strike all together to defend
• Our pensions against robbery
• Our wages against public – and private – sector pay freezes
• Our NHS, schools and universities against privatisation, break-up and “reforms”
• Our young people against a life of unemployment, or low pay, long hours and temporary jobs.

Unite has already called for coordinated action against the pay freeze and is balloting. The NUT has voted for a strike against pay restraint. Linking these actions together could help create a powerful impulse towards joint action and a general strike, and make it harder for the union tops to ignore the mood for action or claim members don’t want a strike.

But above all, it would be a way to start organising the forces from below that want action. Everyone who signed the petition could be drawn into campaigning for it themselves, getting their workmates to sign, then coming together in local meetings. We need to organise from the grassroots – in every workplace, including the remote and isolated ones and those not yet organised.

The government has already threatened to use the army to break the strike. We will need to organise regular pickets and flying pickets to stop strikebreakers and resist police and army harassment of strikers.

The students could play a role in this too. The NUS plans a demonstration in November. The National Campaign against Fees and Cuts should launch a campaign now to mobilise college and school students to join the TUC demo to defend education, scrap the fees and restore the EMA, linking all of this to a clear call for a general strike. The aim should be another outburst of mass direct action around the time of the NUS demo.

Other sections of the working class and poor can also be drawn in – disabled people campaigning against ATOS, pensioners fighting cuts, unemployed campaigns, youth, black and immigrant workers’ groups.

Organising from below
The TUC leaders are only talking tough, letting off steam about “considering” a general strike because they know union members are angry, but in reality planning no action at all. They may come back after a long slow process of ‘investigation’ and announce that we can’t do it.

The more left wing of the union leaders may be looking for a repeat of the “coordinated strike” over pensions – legal because all involved were in officially recognised disputes with their employers, but vulnerable to being divided as each union negotiated and withdrew action separately.

That is why organising from below for a general strike is now the key. This would mean everyone striking together until the government falls. It means busting the anti-union laws and making them totally unworkable.

Of course the TUC is a treacherous leadership; it will do everything the can to avoid calling a general strike or to call it off as soon as possible. But it cannot be ignored as long as it is the official leadership of six million workers.

The answer to this problem is that the agitation and the organisation for a general strike must come from below, from the workplaces, the rank and file. And if this mass pressure can bring about a situation where the union leaders seriously consider or call a general strike, then we will have created the mechanisms to exert control from below and even to take over leadership if – or rather when – the leaders desert the fray.

The agitation for a general strike on 20 October is only the start. Far from it deflecting from the tasks of strengthening branches, workplace organisation, rank and file groups and local campaigns, it would stimulate them, unite them, infuse them with a political goal: the defeat of all the cuts and the downfall of this reactionary government. It is the division of all these struggles that tends to lower confidence that we can win.

As in Greece a general strike – even a one-day protest as a start – would also raise the question of what sort of government and what sort of party we need: not only to abandon all the cuts and bankers’ bailouts, but to make the rich pay and open the prospect of a revolutionary alternative to capitalism.

All those in favour of a general strike should come together now in united mobilising committees to make it happen and to control any action once it starts. We should encourage all workplaces and union branches, pensioners’ groups and anti-cuts campaigns, student bodies and welfare action groups to send delegates to this committee so we can reach out to the widest possible layers of supporters.

Unions and campaigning groups will also need to keep any 20 October mobilising committees active after the demo. We should develop them into delegate-based councils of action, really able to organise the strike at a local level.

Step up the fight now – for a general strike to bring down the Tories!

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